Birds

Peregrine falcon. Photo by E. Vernon Laux
Peregrine falcons occur worldwide. They have come back from the brink of extinction and are now a welcome and not unexpected bird of prey to encounter in a day of birding. This individual - an immature with the coloration and size of the breeding population in Greenland - seems to be doing fine on the Vineyard in winter. It has a full crop, indicating it has just finished a meal.

Groundhog Day

Story & Photo by E. Vernon Laux - February 9, 2006

Today is really the middle of the winter. Feb. 2 is the midway point between the onset of winter and the spring equinox. Looking at it another way, tomorrow we are "over the hump," and spring - on the calendar, astronomically, and for birds and other wildlife - is a scant (or distant) six weeks away. A holiday that is not recognized by most states or the federal government, meaning that people have to go to work, it is also the only day of the year named for a mammal.

While having little to do with birds, any mid-winter celebration - even if... no, especially if it's a little odd - appeals to the likes of this writer. Bird sightings have hardly been overwhelming and it seems like a good idea to augment these with a little talk of groundhogs, which are nothing like a hog. The groundhog is, in fact, a large, burrow-dwelling rodent.

Groundhogs are also known as woodchucks and Eastern marmots. They are pesky varmints for many gardeners. They are quite scarce on the Vineyard, but common elsewhere in New England. Groundhogs are one of the few animals that really hibernate. Hibernation is not just a deep sleep. It is actually a deep coma, where the body temperature drops to a few degrees above freezing, the heart barely beats, the blood scarcely flows, and breathing nearly stops.

The average groundhog is 20 inches long and normally weighs from 12 to 15 pounds. Punxsutawney Phil is the name of the groundhog that the town of Punxsutawny, Pennsylvania keeps. He has become world-famous, and he weighs about 20 pounds and is 22 inches long. The town, Phil, and its annual Groundhog Day celebration were immortalized in the film "Groundhog Day," a very funny movie. For anyone interested in the town's celebration, check out the web site http://www.groundhog.org/.

While a terrific event that breaks up the midwinter doldrums, Groundhog Day is rarely an accurate predictor of how much winter is left. Whether the groundhog sees its shadow or not, the predicted forecast is correct 39 percent of the time. A flip of a coin would be more accurate. Whether it sees its shadow or not, there are still six weeks of winter left. The groundhog as weather predictor is an old wives' tale.

Bird mythology
One of my favorite old wives' tales about birds is about a couple of birds that are summer residents on the Vineyard, Whip-poor-will's and Chuck-will's-widow. They belong to the family Caprimulgidae, which is the scientific name of the family, whilst the common name is Goatsucker. The birds are nocturnal, making their habits and life styles even more mysterious. The origin of the common family name comes from a time when settlers from the Old World would encounter one of these dead. It was a time when nature was feared and a bird or wild animal trapped in a barn or elsewhere was summarily shot and killed.

Settlers who killed one of these amazing birds were mystified at their anatomy. These bluejay-size birds have a short flat beak surrounded by rictal bristles, resembling nothing so much as long whiskers on their face. The birds' beaks when opened unhinge at the sides and spread to an impossibly large opening, almost resembling the ability of a snake to unhinge its jaws. The only possible explanation they could come up with for the birds was that they were sneaking around at night and stealing milk by suckling from goats, sheep, and whatever other domestic animals one cares to think of. Hence the common name goatsuckers.

This was the way the world worked: every wild creature was hell bent on making life hard on humans. This explanation, today, could not be more ridiculous. But we know this because of modern scientific observation, the passage of time, and reasoned research. We are no longer fighting with wolves, bears, and cougars to defend our food supply, without which we would perish. Times were very different.

What these birds eat is flying nocturnal insects. On the Vineyard they specifically target large moths. They can see a bit and have many nerve endings on the ends of their rictal bristles. The birds fly about with beaks/mouths opened wide, surrounded and increased in size by the funnel of the bristles. It is like they are flying around with a catcher's mitt on the front end and this is how they capture enough big moths to survive. The settlers need not have worried about losing valuable milk to the birds they named goatsuckers.

Lastly, Katie Upson of Chilmark was excited to see a mid-winter gem of a bird right in downtown Edgartown on Jan. 27. She was walking by a large multiflora rose bush when she noticed a bright yellow bird sunning itself on the edge. She had binoculars and noted the brilliant yellow throat and breast, white undertail coverts, bright green back and white "spectacles" and loral stripe around the eye. She correctly identified the bird as a yellow-breasted chat, always a nice bird to see on the Vineyard. They are very shy and scarce - and unforgettable once seen.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky.

To contribute news about birding activities or sightings, call The Times Birdline, 508-693-6100, extension 33, or e-mail birds@mvtimes.com.